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Christians in the Muslim World

Oaths and Dissidents

They call them the Thomas Christians: a name that tells of a very ancient history of evangelisation that goes back to the apostle who began his work along the coasts of India roundabout the year 50 AD. A fascinating, unknown and dramatic story.

Ten centuries before Christ, South India already had commercial contacts with Phoenicians, Egyptians and the Jews of the Kingdom of Solomon. Many Aramaic-speaking Jewish commercial settlements were established along the coast of modern Kerala during the period that runs from the sixth to the second centuries BC. By the third or second centuries BC the Romans, too, had begun commercial contacts with South India. Alexander’s military expedition, which ended in North West India, electrified these international relations. These contacts became more intense and easier during the first half of the first century AD, in particular because of the new sea route opened up by Hippalus in 44 AD.



Before 49 AD the Apostle Thomas had already engaged in intense missionary activity in the region that ranges from Mesopotamia to North West India. In that year, Thomas went to the Indo-Parthian kingdom of Gundaphoros whose capital was Thakshashila, located in present-day Pakistan. He reigned from 20 to 49 AD. Until British archaeologists discovered hundreds of royal coins of Gundaphoros in 1830s no historian had ever believed in the existence of such a king. Historians had only ridiculed the ‘legendary’ character of the third century apocryphal Acts of Judas Thomas which speaks of Thomas converting this king and some of his subjects. Here we should add that the confusion between the first and second mission of Thomas occurred in these apocryphal Acts, which were composed between AD 180 and AD 250 in Edessa or neighbouring regions in Mesopotamia. The South Indian stories about Thomas’ missionary works and miracles were mixed up with his earlier mission in the Kingdom of Gundaphoros, and this explains the confusions in the Acts of Judas Thomas. Despite this problem, nobody can deny the historical nucleus that underlies these accounts.



According to second century South Indian traditions, Thomas came to South India and landed at Malyamkara, the royal city of Kodungalloor in 50 AD. A Jewish flute-girl was the first to be converted, as is attested in the South Indian stories as well as in the Acts of Judas Thomas. After converting some members of the Chera royal family he proceeded to the Chozha kingdom and to South East China. In 51 AD he returned to the Chera kingdom and continued his earlier work. In AD 52 he established a palli (a Buddhist term for a church or liturgical assembly).



For eight years he crisscrossed the important Jewish commercial settlements of the Chera kingdom and established six more such pallis with persons trained in the organisation of worship. In 58 AD the messengers of the Chozha kingdom captured him and took him to their king, from whom Thomas had already accepted money for the building of a palace. Instead of building it, however, he had spent the money on helping the poor, and for this disobedience he was imprisoned. However, he escaped death through divine intervention which took the form of the conversion of Chozha and a group of people. In this kingdom he also organised a palli. Thereafter he preached in many other countries and converted people. Finally he went back to the Chera kingdom to visit all the pallis there where he spent a few years until his final departure for the Pandi kingdom in 69 AD for further missionary work. On Karkadakom (July) 3 in 72 AD he was martyred, killed by a spear in Maylapur (near to present-day Chennai). His tomb has been venerated in this city since the first century even though his mortal remains were moved to Edessa in the third century. They were later taken to Chios and to Ortona in Italy during the Islamic persecutions. Thousands of articles and hundreds of books appeared during the twentieth century on Apostle Thomas’ evangelisation of India and no serious historian can now question the historicity of this very ancient tradition.



Christianity in India underwent a persecution during the second half of the second century and this brought the Church of South India into hierarchical communion with the Persian Church. Persian Christians began to migrate to South India from the third century onwards because of Zoroastrian persecutions and for reasons of international trade. Such migrations continued from the seventh to the tenth centuries and these, too, were generated by Islamic persecutions.



In the eighth century the Church of India came directly under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Eastern Syrian Church and thus under the Catholicos Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctsesiphon. Although the bishops as far as we know came from Mesopotamia, the actual jurisdiction was in the hands of a native priest, the Archdeacon of All India. The Archdeacon came from the famous Pakalomattom family, one of the few families to have received the priesthood from Apostle Thomas himself. Lay assemblies at the parish, local and national levels, decided the affairs of the Church, whereas the bishops remained its spiritual leaders. This form of ecclesial lay rule has been shattered by foreign interventions over the last four hundred years.



In the thirteenth century some Italian travellers came to know about the existence of Thomas Christians in India and this was something wholly unexpected for both parties. Thomas Christians accorded a cordial welcome to the Christians from the West. In 1498 Vasco da Gama arrived on the Kerala coast and this inaugurated a new and troubled chapter in the history of Christianity in India. Initially, the European missionaries and Thomas Christians accepted each other. Gradually the missionaries began to develop a dislike for the Eastern Syriac liturgy of the Thomas Christians and to accuse the native Christians of Nestorian heresy. It is historically true that the bishops of the Thomas Christians came from the Eastern Syrian Church whose supreme head was in Mesopotamia. European missionaries started a process involving the Latinisation of the liturgy and a Westernisation of Indian Christianity. This unwelcome colonisation was complete by the Synod of Diamper in 1599. The communion of Thomas Christians with Rome began as an external imposition between 1498 and 1599. This forceful imposition, however, did not go unopposed.



The resistance resulted in the Koonan Cross Oath of 1653 and the declaration of ecclesial independence from European jurisdiction. The Western missionaries did not realise that they were uprooting a native and apostolic Christianity that was older than theirs. Within a decade the Thomas Christian community was split between the Old Party (which followed the European missionaries) and the New Party (which rebelled against the European missionaries). The New Party received a Western Syrian or Jacobite bishop, Gregorios, in 1665. This bishop was the first Western Syrian bishop to be sent by the Patriarch of Antioch to India. Before this there is no historical evidence of a connection between Antioch and the Indian Church. At first the Western Syrian liturgy was put into Eastern Syriac to make it acceptable to priests and people of the New Party. By 1825 the Western Syriac language had become well established. While the Old Party remained under Latin and Roman rule, the New Party came under Jacobite or Antiochean rule. Thus the age-old Eastern Syrian connections were broken by both parties, albeit unwillingly by the Old Party. But both parties wanted to be united again as one community. However, all such efforts at reunion were systematically thwarted by the Latin missionaries who did not want locals to become bishops. Protestant missionaries began to influence the already Antiocheanised New Party by 1825. An especially complex historical picture thus emerges which can be represented in the following chronological way:



1. Mar Thoma Nasrani (‘Christians of St. Thomas’, 50-1599). This Eastern Syrian Church was Latinised and Romanised between 1498 and 1599. It managed to survive under a new Latinised identity until 1653.



2. The New Party and the Old Party (1653-1665): two Latinised Eastern Syriac Churches.



3. The New Party under an Antiochean, Western Syrian, Jacobite bishop (1665 onwards).



4. A split in the New Party and the birth of the Independent Syrian Church of Thozhiyoor in 1772.



5. The New Party under Protestant missionary influence splits again leading to the emergence of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, 1837-1889. This new group underwent a later split in 1952 and yet another in 1971.



6. The New Party split between the Bava Party and the Metran Party in 1912. Both groups came together in 1958 only to split again in 1973-1975. The Bava Party remained under the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch. The Metran Party is organised under a Catholicos and calls itself ‘Orthodox’, a term adopted since the 1930s.



7. A group from the New Party, called the Bava Party, entered into communion with the Roman or Latin Church and took the name of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.



8. The Old Party split in 1874 leading to the birth of the Chaldean Syrian Church of Trichur which was Nestoreanised in 1908.



9. The Old Party became the Syro-Malabar Church in 1887. Thus we find that the tree of the St. Thomas Christian Church has many branches. These branches are: the Latinised Eastern Syrian, the Nestoreanised Eastern Syrian, the Antiocheanized (Jacobitised) Western Syrian, the Protestantised Western Syrian, the Orthodoxised Western Syrian and the Protestantised Pentecostal groups. Since 1498 some Thomas Christians have merged with the Latin Church. Nowadays we hear a lot about Church unity, ecumenical dialogue and the like. The history of the one apostolic Church of India could be an excellent test case in this field: the past four hundred years of Indian Church history must be rewritten to restore a lost unity and identity. It is a dream worth having.






A.C.Perumalil, The Apostles in India (Patna, 1971).



P.J.Podipara, The Thomas Christians (London, 1970).



A.M.Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, vol. 1, CHAI (Bangalore, 1984).



B.Vadakkekara, Origin of Christianity in India: A Historiographical Critique (Delhi, 2007).



G.Nedungatt, Quest for the Historical Thomas Apostle of India: A Re-reading of the Evidence (TPI, Bangalore, 2008).